I was excited by the Dacia Duster when I drove one last year. Who wouldn’t be when eleven grand gets you a brand new, very competent four-wheel-drive estate/SUV? Yet among the glitz and the glamour of a new model launch it is easy to be distracted from the question of whether you could live with one on a longer-term basis.
So I borrowed a bottom-of-the-range model for a week to see if the little Dacia (Datch-ya, remember) Duster could live up to its reputation as the biggest automotive bargain of the year.
The cheapest Duster only comes in UN-spec white and steel wheels. This is Good. Its honest and open and transparent; you should revel in its poverty status and not be shy to admit that you haven’t spent much on your brand new car.
The less secure among you can spend more and choose from a slightly larger palette if you must; either way the Duster’s design is neat, unremarkable, and very practical. Boxy and with large areas of glass. Like SUVs used to be
The interior features cheap plastic and previous-generation Renault switchgear and Im afraid that none of the surfaces are tactile and all reek of cost cutting. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the ergonomics are OK and everything works as well as it needs to; the Duster exemplifies the philosophy that sometimes good enough is good enough. You’ll never forget that you are in a cheap car – but then you are in a very cheap car.
Boot space is good, rear-seat legroom is acceptable, and the seating position is SUV-high. The only really jarring note is a steering wheel that has a weirdly inverted dish on it, whereby the airbag protrudes out more than the rim. This never failed to irritate me, but then other, more tolerant people, probably wouldn’t even notice it.
Trim levels are Access, Ambiance and Laureate. All get ABS and Emergency Brake Assist, driver, passenger and front side airbags, Isofix points, a folding rear seat, central locking, power steering, electric front windows, pre-wiring for a stereo, and a height-adjustable steering wheel.
Ambience adds a compulsory diesel engine, body-coloured bumpers, some interior chrome, different steel wheels and cloth upholstery, front fog lights, height-adjustable drivers seat, a split-folding rear seat, and a stereo with Bluetooth.
The top trim level of Laureate adds lots of equipment so you’ll have some natty alloy wheels, manual air-con, a trip computer, electric heated mirrors, and electric rear windows plus a few other decorative trinkets.
The Dacia stops and goes and turns in a way that cars did twenty years ago, which is to say that it doesn’t do anything badly but then nor does it set any new benchmarks. If you don’t really care about how a car drives (and a lot of people don’t) you’ll be fine. Its a wieldy size that makes parking easy and narrow roads stress-free yet most families would fit into one for all but the longest camping holiday.
The keen driver will note that the steering is a bit woolly and the gearbox is strongly sprung towards the 3rd/4th plane, so you can easily slip down from 5th into 4th instead of up into 6th. The suspension allows a fair bit of body-roll too and it gets noisy when the road surface deteriorates.
It copes with moderate off-road conditions rather well and is fitted with mud and snow tyres that give good grip under most conditions. The Nissan-derived four-wheel-drive system can be left in Auto to figure out when you need all four wheels to be driven and can be locked into four-wheel-drive if conditions underfoot are especially bad.
The 4×4 gearbox has six ratios where the two-wheel-drive model makes do with five because first gear is an extra-low ratio better suited to off-road work. For road use I set off in second and the engine pulled away keenly every time; first is just too low for everyday use.
The petrol engine is a 1.6-litre 16-valve Renault unit producing 105bhp and 109lb/ft of torque. Performance is adequate with the 0-62mph sprint taking 12.8 seconds and a top speed of 99mph.
It can get a bit coarse and raucous at higher revs but it gets the job done at a price. Fuel consumption is likely to hover around the early thirties but it is the Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) that is the killer: 185g/km means that it falls into Band I means an initial bill of £325, falling to £220 for subsequent years at current rates. Thats quite a lot.
The diesel engines are cheaper to run and a feel a bit more torquey, which makes for a nicer driving experience. Performance is similar to the petrol-engined models while fuel economy is better and VED costs lower. They are, though, more expensive to buy and you cant get them in the basic model.
Value for Money
The Dacia Duster is astonishingly good value for money in its most basic versions with nothing coming close to the initial price point. The trouble is that the higher-spec models do start to stray into the territory of some very accomplished cars like the Skoda Yeti. If you tick all the options for a top-of-the-range Laureate diesel 4×4 you’ll be writing a cheque for almost £18,500, which is too much when a new Yeti diesel 4×4 can be had for less than £400 more.
A two-wheel-drive model is also available starting at just under £9,000.
The Duster is not without its faults and does demand a certain compromise on the part of the owner; you’ll never, ever get into it and feel special.
But, with more and more middle-class families shopping at places like Lidl and Aldi a market is growing in which people are willing to forego a premium brand experience when they can get 90% of the satisfaction for half of the cost and this is where the Dacia brand comes in. If you need a new four-wheel-drive SUV then the Duster is well worth considering. It’s cheap, effective, and (especially if you buy the optional seven-year warranty) a feasible long-term car.
Just don’t get carried away and turn a decent cheap car into an expensive one, will you?
For more, check out our Dacia Duster page which includes reviews, stats, photos, videos and more.